Barefoot Notes: The Holy Python

We’re only a phone call away to rescue snakes from homes before they are killed, and work with the Forest Department on such small rescue missions. But often we hear about a handsome snake only a day after it is killed. The most common incidences of human-snake interactions happen during monsoon, and they are different than most because the incidences of the largest of the snakes  – the Indian Rock Python, Python molursus  –  of central India venturing boldly near human settlements and agriculture fields in search of prey increases.

Pythons have fascinated man since a long time, and Forsyth wrote about them to be a “subject of so many wonderful tales” in central India. Forsyth mentions the Indian Rock Python only once in his epic Highlands of Central India as a narration of his encounter with this snake in the forests of central India. His description is rather vivid, as is his reaction, for pythons evoke a great fear and awe in those who see it (pp. 353–354):

“It was in these jungles that I first saw the great rock python of India, which is the subject of so many wonderful tales. I was following the track of a wounded deer, and, the day being very hot, had mounted my horse, a chestnut Arab, from which I could shoot, carrying a rifle. The horse almost trod upon him, lying on a narrow pathway, and started back with a snort, as the great snake slowly twisted himself off the road, and down the slope of the hill, along which it wound. A loud rustling, and here and there the wave of a fold in the grass, told me that something was moving down the bank, and I forced the horse after it, very unwillingly on his part, till with a loud hiss, and a swish of his folds, the serpent gathered himself into a great coil, just under the horse's nose. A very unpleasant sound, like the boiling of a big kettle, came from the gathered pyramid of coils, and I lost no time in leaning over and firing both barrels of the rifle into the mass, at the same time drawing the horse back to the pathway, as I did not know the customer I had to deal with. The snake made off down the hill, and my horse refused to follow, so that, before I could dismount and get down on foot, all trace of him was lost. I was taken by surprise, or should perhaps have made a better business of it. My impression was that the creature was about twenty-five feet long, of a leaden colour, and about as thick as a large man s thigh. I have seen one killed in the same jungles, which measured sixteen feet in length. They are of a very sluggish disposition, and do not molest man. The stories of their swallowing spotted deer whole, antlers and all, I believe to be utter myths.”
On World Snake Day (July 16), we received a call about a python that had come in contact of a grazing lot of cattle and goats under the shadow of a rocky hillock striped of trees called Chandi. It had caught hold of an adult goat by the neck, twisted her around a couple of times, but had let her go when the shepherd hit it hard on its head. Since then, the shepherd later informed us, the snake had been lying still. We arrived in the evening to a little gathering of several bystanders, local taxis and bikers forming an arc around the road, and first laid our eyes on a gorgeous eight foot long python lying still by the roadside. A few yards from the gathering the cattle and the goats grazed oblivious to the commotion.

The left-half of the python’s jaw was bleeding, and remained half-open. The snake’s body however showed no wounds. With the help of the Forest Department, we took it away for a checkup and some dressing of its bleeding mouth. I asked the shepherd if the goat was alright, and he said yes; except for a sprain in the neck, she was okay. I also wanted to ask why he didn’t kill the snake, instead of just hitting it enough to let it go of its grasp, but refrained.

We brought the snake to our centre in Kanha, and let it rest here for a while. The most snake-friendly veterinarian was with us that day, and we were able to examine the snake when the park authorities arrived. It had six severe puncture wounds on its lower jaw, probably created by its own upper teeth when he was hit hard on the head; and the upper jaw was a black-blue line of broken teeth and damaged mouthparts that had punctured the lower. Clotted blood had filled its mouth.

Once cleaned of its wound and examined for other injuries – which fortunately were none – the snake was bathed with water a number of times. And then, it began to move. Some said that the snake might be a female about five years old. When she began to crawl, she did so in a very straight line using her muscles as legs.

The deputy ranger told us of his encounters with these giants in the forests of Kanha. Generally, it is said, when a python makes a kill, all the animals unite against it and stamp upon it. Once, he said, he saw a python bringing down a Barasingha, but the snake received a strong resistance, and became masked in its own blood, but it did not let go of its prey. It perhaps implied that a python is strong enough to withstand such excruciating pain.

It was unanimously decided that the python would be released that night itself, so she was taken deep inside the protected forests, away from any human interactions, where she could find peace of mind that she earnestly required for healing. That is all we could do. Snakes do not express pain, the veterinarian expressed, and to keep her would have stressed her, and might have killed her.

To watch this large python eight feet long and weighing about the same slither smoothly on the moist earth as it vanished into the darkness was a hopeful sight. It would have been in vain, and unnatural, for this gentle wild beast to be arrested until she was fully healed. We saw her raise her head to see where she was headed as she made her way through the thickets. She would find shelter, and rest there for days until her wounds healed and her teeth grew back, and she would never have to chase human pets again.

For five years she stayed near human settlements, feeding on rodents, hares, and possibly small domestic animals. And in those five years she had never encountered a human. On this fateful day when we were celebrating World Snake Day, she encountered her worst enemy – man – by a mere accident.
The Holy Python, now ready for release.
But what made the shepherd not kill her when almost all the snakes are inevitably killed made all the difference. It gave her a new life. The reason for not killing her perhaps lies in an ancient tradition. Pythons are considered an avatar of Goddess Lakshmi, who brings good fortune, and who visits homes after the harvest is stored in granary and rests there guarding the grains from rodents and bad omen. This simple belief has saved this snake from its doom, and perhaps has saved many in the past. Old tales tell of pythons seeking shelter in granaries for many years, when people were more tolerant of them.

Last year we rescued a feisty python measuring five feet and weighing about the same, which was found by women working in fields. A few years before the Forest Department had to request women to stop worshiping a female python and her neonates who had taken shelter on a hill not so far from Chandi so that they could rescue the snake family.

These tales are of a small note, but the traditional culture is probably the only thing that has kept central India’s largest snakes alive outside of protected areas. But their fate hangs by a thread.

Kaa’s words to Baloo and Bagheera, “Psshaw! The branches are not what they were when I was young. Rotten twigs and dry boughs are they all” (– Kaa's Hunting, The Jungle Book) might be coming true after all.

Woodcutting, bringing new land under cultivation, and expanding of grazing lands is closing the gap between these gentle giants and the potentially easier-to-catch domestic animals. And that would mean conflict. It is only this traditional thread that is keeping local communities tolerant of pythons in their backyard, and it is the only thread ecologists have to pull on to, to make it stronger if we are to protect this enigmatic species before conflict increases.